[Taxacom] GBIF: perpetuating probably defunct unpublished names

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Mon May 24 18:17:41 CDT 2010

The posts in this thread are getting longer so I'll try to be brief, but I need to quote David Remsen's post to establish context. Apologies for boring.

"In these cases, it is infrastructure that enables these questions and lines of inquiry to be pursued and it often indicates a clear need for more accurate and verified data. Perhaps, we could and should, as Stephen suggests, disconnect that infrastructure from the 8000 or so source databases that provide these 200 million plus raw data and identify a set of courses that provide only sources derived through taxonomic revisions. It may be, via examples like this, that additional use cases to support increased taxonomic revisions can be marshalled.

I believe, however, that there is a need for infrastructure that enables and supports larger questions about biodiversity. I also think there should be a distinction made between that infrastructure and the quality of data that is mobilised through it. We can, and should, focus on methods that enable quality assessments to be made, annotations to be provided, and data quality to be improved."

These are admirable top-down sentiments, and even offer a helping hand to Stephen Thorpe's bottom-up ones. And no one will argue that there aren't 'larger questions about biodiversity' that need squillions of data items to investigate, although my feeling is that the infrastructures (sounds better than acronyms?) aren't *required* for this, and that the *investigators* should be the ones to do the data checking. After all, economists and demographers don't demand that every piece of economic and population data be gathered in one place before they start asking 'larger questions'.

But the core issue here is the spectacular disconnect between working taxonomists and the acronymists who want to be the primary interface for access to specialist-produced data. Most specialists aren't asking 'larger questions' because they're thoroughly occupied with smaller ones. They don't need the infrastructures, but the infrastructures not only have an absolute requirement for specialist-produced data, but wistfully hope that specialists will assist with data quality within the infrastructure. Note that the acronymists aren't handing out money to assist the specialists, either with data quality work or with data generation. These are almost entirely separate enterprises. The argument 'We're all working on the same project and should support each other' doesn't wash with me, and won't wash until I see the pattern of growth in acronyms and decline in taxonomy start reversing.

On a local scale it gets worse, because if there's an infrastructure, taxonomic expertise gets bypassed. Why bother consulting with local or area-knowledgeable specialists about climate change or species distributions when you've got locality data in a database? (Which could lead me to those appalling predictive distribution models which say species A has a particular envelope, when I know damned well it doesn't, because I've looked for it and instead found ecological equivalent B, which isn't in the bloody database, but never mind...).

Finally, consider the difference in response between acronymists and taxonomists to the single most important issue in biodiversity in the 21st century, namely the ongoing mass extinction. I have never seen an infrastructure promotion which has said more than 'We'll help monitor this collapse, and help tweak the few reserve locations that a massively increasing human population will allow in the landscape. Just give us an office, a computer and a Net connection'. On the other hand, I know taxonomists who are actively working to discover and document our disappearing biodiversity and to advise in detail on conservation from species to ecosystem level. They're outdoors a lot. 
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
03 64371195; 61 3 64371195
Webpage: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/mesibov.html

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